LeBron James, the NBA’s most powerful player and biggest star who brought the Cleveland Cavaliers their first NBA championship, is concerned about the Cavaliers’ offseason, a person close to the situation told USA TODAY Sports.
Expecting an aggressive offseason approach that would close the gap on the champion Golden State Warriors, James soon found his anticipation and optimism diminished after Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert dismantled the front office, declining days before the draft and free agency to bring back general manager David Griffin and vice president of basketball operations Trent Redden.
Gilbert’s decision left the Cavs without the franchise’s top two front-office execs at a critical time, and it left James frustrated and concerned about the team’s ability to put together a roster that can better compete with Golden State, the person with direct knowledge of James’ thinking told USA TODAY Sports. The person was not authorized to speak publicly and requested anonymity.
James can become a free agent following the 2017-18 season, and it doesn’t take a wild imagination to see him elsewhere – especially if he feels there’s a better opportunity for him to win a championship with another team. The Lakers are mentioned as a possibility with James recruiting another star to join a young and talented core for the 2018-19 season.
Further exacerbating James’ frustration is the Cavs were close to making a deal for then-Chicago Bulls All-Star Jimmy Butler the day Gilbert decided to mutually part ways with Griffin and Redden, two people familiar with negotiations told USA TODAY Sports. They requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly on the negotiations.
As the Cavs try to regain the throne and with one season left before James can become a free agent next July, it’s clear that franchise-altering consequences are at stake.
Powering this speculation about James and his future is Gilbert’s handling of the front office. Other team executives and agents are asking: What’s going on with the Cavs?
In between the Cavs ousting their top two front-office guys, the New York Knicks fired Phil Jackson and promoted Steve Mills to president and hired Scott Perry as general manager. The Orlando Magic snatched Jeff Weltman from Toronto and John Hammond from Milwaukee to lead their front office.
Meanwhile, the Cavs also missed out on bringing Chauncey Billups in to run the front office. When Gilbert announced Griffin would not be back with the team, he said in a statement, “We are confident our current front office will continue to aggressively explore and pursue opportunities to improve our team in the weeks ahead.”
According to a person familiar with the Cavs’ front office, Gilbert is continuing the process of evaluating the leadership roles, structure and potential candidates. He feels the current group in the room has been impressive and done a very good job in the short term as they have continued to take important steps to position the team for success. That group will continue to focus on that and Gilbert is confident this process will result in creating the strong leadership the team needs and expects, the person told USA TODAY Sports on Monday. The person was not authorized to speak publicly on the issue and requested anonymity.
And Gilbert is paying, too — nearly $210 million in salaries and luxury taxes for the 2017-18 season.
James’ frustration with the Griffin situation didn’t end there. Other teams loaded up. The Warriors retooled with Kevin Durant re-signing for less money than he could have and Steph Curry re-signing for a max deal. They retained Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston and added shooters Nick Young and Omri Casspi.
The Warriors are maybe deeper and better than they were last season. It should be noted that the Warriors gave general manager Bob Myers an extension and promotion after losing to the Cavs in the 2016 Finals. That should’ve been the time the Cavs rewarded Griffin for winning a championship – a contrast in how the franchises are run.
The Houston Rockets acquired Chris Paul. The Boston Celtics got Gordon Hayward. The Minnesota Timberwolves traded for Butler and signed Jeff Teague, Taj Gibson and Jamal Crawford in free agency.
The Crawford signing stung. The Cavs were in the running for the three-time Sixth Man of the Year. But the Cavs offered just the minimum salary ($2.3 million a season) when they had the taxpayer midlevel ($5.19 million per season) available.
James was active in recruiting Crawford, and Crawford appreciated James’ efforts to get him to Cleveland. James did his part. But the Timberwolves offered $4.45 million a season. Instead, the Cavs gave part of the taxpayer midlevel exception to Turkish big man Cedi Osman, who is unlikely to make an impact in 2017-18.
The Cavs also re-signed Kyle Korver and signed Jose Calderon and Jeff Green during free agency. Did those moves put Cleveland closer to Golden State?
At 32, James wants to win now. Given Cleveland’s salary cap situation which prevents it from unlimited spending, James is realistic about what’s possible and what’s not, and that’s why he wonders why the Cavs went into a critical period without veteran front-office execs in place to execute complicated moves. Both Griffin and Redden will have front-office jobs when the right opportunity presents itself.
James, who was not consulted about the Griffin decision, had appreciated what Griffin did to put Cleveland in position to reach the Finals and compete for championships in three consecutive seasons and James said so on Twitter the night Griffin was told he wouldn’t be back.
“If no one appreciated you Griff I did, and hopefully all the people of Cleveland! Thanks for what u did for the team for 3 yrs! We got us 1 (trophy emoji),” James tweeted.
James enjoys living in the moment, and 2017-18 is his focus.
Bu is Gilbert doing what’s necessary to build a team that can beat the Golden State Warriors and win another title?
The answer to that question will have a long-term impact on the Cavaliers.
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